It’s Friday night and my teenage son has invited about a dozen of his buddies—boys and girls—over to the house.
They’re sprawled out on the couch, mostly separated by gender, glued to their smartphones. Over by the TV, a few kids are playing video games that, along with their yelps and whoops, are providing the soundtrack for the evening. The group on the couch are close, emotionally and physically; they form a long human chain, shoulders snuggled up against their neighbors’. Some of the girls are leaning into the other girls, using them as pillows. The boys are physical with each other, but differently: They reach out occasionally to fist bump or high-five. One couple, a boyfriend and girlfriend, are clumped in the middle of the couch, draped on top of one another, while at the same time pressed up against the others.
There’s an electric teenage energy to the group. They’re functioning as a group, yet they’re all independent. They spend long periods in silence; the only noises emanating from the gang are the occasional sounds that are emitted from their devices—pings, plonks, chimes, and tinny songs from YouTube pages. Bursts of laughter are frequent, starting with one person and spreading like wild fire to the others. As they turn their devices toward one another, I hear them saying, “Have you seen this?” and shrieking, “Oh my god!” Laughter ripples again, dying out quickly. Then they plunge back into concentrated silence. Out of the blue, one of the kids on the couch playfully says to the other, “You jerk! I can’t believe you just sent me that!”
And it’s then that I realize that as much as they’re texting and status updating elsewhere on the web, a large part of their digital communication is happening between these kids seated on the same couch.
They’re constantly taking pictures of themselves and of each other. Some are shooting videos, directing their friends to make faces, to say outrageous things to the camera, or to wave hello. And then, it’s right back to the devices, where those images are uploaded to social media and shared among the group, as links are blasted out—all within a minute. Suddenly, the girls shriek, “I look so ugly!” or “You look so pretty!” and “We need to take this one again.” I hear someone say, “That was so funny! Let’s watch it again.” They count likes and favorites as they pile up and read comments that are instantly appearing from both inside and outside the room. This goes on for hours.
In a sense, this is as much about creativity as it is about communication. Each photo, posed and styled, is considered with a public response in mind. They are excited by the idea of themselves as images. But why wouldn’t they be? From before the moment they were born, my kids have been awash in images of themselves, beginning with the fuzzy in-utero sonograms that they now have pinned to their bedroom walls.
Since then, our cameras—first clumsy digital cameras and now smartphones—have been a constant presence in their life, documenting their every move. We never took just one picture of them but took dozens in rapid-fire fashion, off-loaded them to the computer, and never deleted a single one. Now, when I open my iPhoto album to show them their baby pictures, the albums look like Andy Warhol paintings, with the same images in slight variations repeated over and over, as we documented them second by second. Clearly we have created this situation.
There is no road map for this territory. They are making it up as they go along. But there’s no way that this evening could be considered asocial or antisocial. Their imaginations are on full throttle and are wildly engaged in what they’re doing. They are highly connected and interacting with each other, but in ways that are pretty much unrecognizable to me.
I’m struggling to figure out what’s so bad about this. I’m reading that screen addiction is taking a terrible toll on our children, but in their world it’s not so much an addiction as a necessity. Many key aspects of our children’s lives are in some way funneled through their devices. From online homework assignments to research prompts, right on down to where and when soccer practice is going to be held, the information comes to them via their devices. (And yes, my kids love their screens and love soccer.)
After reading one of these hysterical “devices are ruining your child” articles, my sister-in-law decided to take action. She imposed a system whereby, after dinner, the children were to “turn in” their devices—computers, smartphones, and tablets—to her. They could “check them out” over the course of the evening, but only if they could explain exactly what they needed them for, which had to be for “educational purposes.” But if there was no reason to check them out, the devices stayed with my sister-in-law until they were given back the next day for their allotted after-school screen time, which she also monitors. Upon confiscating my nephew’s cell phone one Friday night, she asked him on Saturday morning, “What plans do you have with your friends today?” “None,” he responded. “You took away my phone.”
On a family vacation, after a full day of outdoor activities that included seeing the Grand Canyon and hiking, my friend and her family settled into the hotel for the evening. Her twelve-year-old daughter is a fan of preteen goth-girl crafting videos on YouTube, where she learns how to bedazzle black skull T-shirts and make perfectly ripped punk leggings and home-brewed perfumes. That evening, the girl selected some of her favorite videos to share with her mother. After agreeing to watch a few, her mother grew impatient. “This is nice, but I don’t want to spend the whole night clicking around.” The daughter indignantly responded that she wasn’t just “clicking around.” She was connecting with a community of girls her own age who shared similar interests. Her mother was forced to reconsider her premise that her daughter wasn’t just wasting time on the internet; instead, she was fully engaged, fostering an aesthetic, feeding her imagination, indulging in her creative proclivities, and hanging out with her friends, all from the comfort of a remote hotel room perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
I keep reading that in the age of screens we’ve lost our ability to concentrate, that we’ve become distracted, unable to focus. But when I look around me and see people riveted to their devices, I’ve never seen such a great wealth of concentration, focus, and engagement. I find it ironic that those who say we have no concentration are most bothered by how addicted people are to their devices. I find it equally ironic that most of the places I read about how addicted we are to the web is on the web itself, scattered across numerous websites, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook pages.
On those blogs, I read how the internet has made us antisocial, how we’ve lost the ability to have a conversation. But when I see people with their devices, all I see is people communicating with one another: texting, chatting, IM’ing. And I have to wonder, In what way is this not social? A conversation broken up into short bursts and quick emoticons is still a conversation. Watch someone’s face while they’re in the midst of a rapid-fire text message exchange: It’s full of human emotion and expression—anticipation, laughter, affect.
Critics claim that even having a device present acts to inhibit conversation, and that the best antidote to our technological addiction is a return to good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. But this seems to ignore the fact that smartphones are indeed phones: two-way devices for human-to-human conversations, replete with expressive vocal cadence and warmth. Is conversation over the telephone still—140 years after the phone was invented—somehow not considered “intimate” enough, lessened because it is mediated by technology?
I’m reading that screen time makes kids antisocial and withdrawn, but when I see my kids in front of screens, they deftly negotiate the space of the room with the space of the web. And when they’re, say, gaming, they tend to get along beautifully, deeply engaged with what is happening on the screen while being highly sensitive to each other; not a move of their body or expression of emotion gets overlooked. Gaming ripples through their entire bodies: They kick their feet, jump for joy, and scream in anger.
It’s hard for me to see in what way this could be considered disconnected. It’s when they leave the screens that trouble starts: They start fighting over food, or who gets to sit where in the car. And, honestly, after a while they get bored of screens. There’s nothing like a media-soaked Sunday morning to make them beg me to take them out to the park to throw a football or to go on a bike ride.